Your Company Should be Your Best Product | Jason Fried, Basecamp | BoS USA 2016

No comments

Jason Fried, CEO, Basecamp

Since Basecamp was founded in 1999, it has pioneered a different way of doing things, a different way of working, a different approach to doing business. Started with four people, today Basecamp has about 50 employees across 32 different cities across the world. Everyone at Basecamp is free to live and work wherever they want.

With such a diverse group of people, from so many different places, Jason brings a unique perspective to some of the big issues facing all software companies in a rapidly changing world. He will consider some of the biggest companies face today with the benefit of 17 years pursuing a different path.

Video & Transcript below

Video

 

 


Come to a Business of Software Conference in 2018

BoS USA 2018 -or- BoS Europe 2018

Get on the BoS Conference Mailing List

Be first to see new videos, join free speaker hangouts, stay up to date on BoS Conference programmes and a regular dose of thought provoking ideas.

Unsubscribe anytime. We will never sell your email address.

Transcript

Jason Fried: Hey everybody! So, thanks for having me here today, it’s great to be back! Make sure this is working here. So, I – here we go!

I’ve always been interested in watching people work and seeing how they work and their technique. I found Adobe Illustrator and they said I used to hate product because I would try to make these shapes by using the tools I thought were available, the points and dots and handles, and I would hate Illustrator and thought that’s the only way to use Illustrator. Until one of my designers showed me how they use it and I watched it and watched them combine a couple circles at the intersection and have the shape. He didn’t have to have the shape, he combined other shapes and it combined into the shape that I wanted. And it sort of changed my feeling there because…It changed the way I think about learning because I had struggled with this thing for years and just thought it’s the way to do it until I saw someone else do it and it changed my outlook on the product. The same thing is true for Photoshop, I didn’t really understand how to retouch photos really well – I picked this and that tool do these things and I watched this photographer friend of mine retouch a photo and I saw things I’d never seen before and I understood how to use the tool and do something that I couldn’t do before only because I watched someone else do it.

How we work

So, I thought it would be cool today since I’m the last speaker to show you guys how we work at our company. We’ve been in business for 17 years and we study our company and iterate on it the same way we think about iterating on our products. Everyone in this room understands how to make software better. We iterate and watch people use it and make sure it’s useable – the same things apply to companies as well. You should think of your company as a product and if you do, you begin to look at the company a little bit differently. You start to ask yourself if our company usable? Are the people who work at our company, using it properly? We have a lot of resources here; do they even know what’s possible? How are we communicating, talking and making decisions? And when you start to look at your company like at a product, there’s a whole set of improvements you could make and I think your company should be your best product because it’s the product that makes everything else you do.

So, I thought it would be interesting to show you how we work – we obviously use base camp, I will put our account on the screen and show you exactly how we work and communicate and talk, when we talk, why we talk and what we talk about, how we pitch ideas or figure out what everyone is doing in the company. I will show you the real stuff and I will ask you – whatever is on the screen is real – so there might be some confidential stuff that appears there and so don’t talk about that if you don’t mind but you’re free to talk about some ideas. So, I try to weave some philosophy in here as well so you understand why we do the things we do.

Before I show you, I want to hit one quick point which is we tried to design the way we work around the idea that 40 hours a week is enough. I as an employer and a business owner, I do not believe I’m entitled to anyone’s nights and weekends. That’s their time, it’s not mine. So, whatever we do as a company has to be able to be done in about 40 per week per person and I want as much of those 40 hours a week to be personal time for each person and not company time. Company time deletes time from people, I want everyone to have 40 hours a week of their own time, to do their own work as possible so some of the communication techniques and things I will show you revolve around that idea – so that’s our defining thing, 40 hours is enough, I don’t want to push people beyond that and be tired. I wanna build a sustainable company with people who want to work at our company for long time and I think 40 hours a week is enough time to do that.

So, with that said, I’m going to show you how we work. Again, this is the real stuff so please don’t take pictures if you don’t mind. But we’ll talk about it. First of all, quick background. We have about 50 people in the company, about 12 developers and I’m counting – these are rough numbers cause these people do multiple things. 12 developers, 7 designers, I think 13 people in customer service, about 6-7 on operations like keeping the servers running that technical operations. We have – I’m the CEO, we have a CTO, my business partner David, an COO and office manager and we have one data person and that’s roughly the 50 people that we have. 35 of those people live in 30 different cities around the world so we’re a very remote company – we’re based in Chicago but even the 14 people from Chicago come to the office a few times a week. So, what I’m showing you is our office and how we work together. And I’m gonna go until you guys kick me off the stage so if you have questions blurt them out anytime cause I don’t think there will be time at the end. Just yell it out and I will hear you and go through it.

Structure

I wanna talk about structure first a little bit and then get into some very specific things. So, we break our company into three parts. We have the company which is represented up here – this is what we call BCHQ, like our company project where we talk about everything company wide – stuff that’s not project or team specific but company-wide announcements and I will show you a few of them as an example. Any social chatter we do happens in there, big picture dates for the company – stuff that people need to know company wide, everyone has access to it.

We then have places for teams and teams have their own thing going on – here’s a collection of teams that I’m part of. We’ve got a team for our Chicago office, we got the second one called JFDDRS, this is a small team of 3 people who discuss product strategy together. We have something called the C’s which is a place for our C level people which there’s only 3 of us. The small councils, the place where the team leads from each group in our company have a place to talk and that sort of thing. We have that set up and below this we have projects which is actual project work we’re doing. It might be a variety of things, these are all ongoing things we’re working on at any one time.

[Audience Question] No – so in our company, most people have access to everything but by default you can setup who has access to what. But in our case, we pretty much give everyone access to everything and people can choose if they don’t want to follow it or not, it’s sort of a software mechanic thing. But yes, for example, like the C’s, right up here, there’s just 3 of us that have access to this one and the small council is about 8 people and most of them have access to everyone else. This is a version of basecamp we’re releasing in a few weeks so some people that use it might think what the hell is that? That’s what that is – so you’re seeing something new as well. But we typically allow everyone to have access to everything.

This is a good question and let me get to the philosophy of this. We tried a bunch of different ways of doing this – do we want to limit access to things people are specifically involved with? We found by user testing and observing our employees’ behaviour, people wanted access to everything but one thing that happened and I will show you how we solved this, is when people have access to everything they can be easily overwhelmed by everything that’s going on. And even deeper than that, there is this unusual expectation which surprised me, which was that people feel like they are obligated to know about what’s going on if they have access to something – I didn’t expect that. And so people were spending a lot of time on following a bunch of stuff that didn’t really involve them but they felt they needed to be up on it. And this is actually a really big problem today in a lot of companies – my personal feeling is that companies – one of the most important functions of a company should be – if we’re talking about your company as a product let me put it in terms of a feature – one of the most important features of a company should be to protect and preserve every employee’s time and attention. Companies today are clawing at everyone’s time and attention. At the end of the day and week, very few people actually had a lot of time to themselves and attention. And I break these two things up because time and attention are very different things. Time is a balloon, you got like 40 hours but you don’t have 40 hours of attention, you have a lot less. Attention is a small little nugget because your context shifting and all sort of things are going on so you have very little attention. So I think that it’s important that the company thinks about the every persons time and affection and figures out ways to work in a way in which it does not claw at it, but instead gives it. So, I will show you some examples of that in a few. Actually I’ll jump in here and I will talk about something relates to that – because I like to bounce around based on what people are asking. So, ask stuff and I will go in different directions.

One of the challenges we had when we allowed everyone to have access to everything was this expectation from people that they needed to follow everything to stay up on everything. And at any one time there’s 40 or 50 things happening in our company. It’s a lot of work to stay on top of that and it’s the wrong work for people to be doing. But we also felt it’s really important for people to know what everyone is doing. I feel that this is important for every employee in the company, to understand – at a certain size of course we’re still at that scale where we can do this – where everyone should know what everyone else is doing because it increases the respect across teams and across roles. Sometimes you will feel like you’re really busy and you wonder what he’s doing, what does she do here? And this causes internal tension and some politics and I want to make sure that everyone knows what everyone is doing because when you don’t have clear information, people form their own information and create their own stories and oftentimes, these create anxiety and worry and people filling the gaps with things that aren’t true and this is bad. I think it’s very important to be very clear about everything in the company – I will talk about that in another couple examples.

So, what we’ve decided to do is we had this feature in basecamp and by the way, there’s a lot of products out there that exist that can do some of these things and other things. This isn’t a pitch for the product, I’m showing you what we use for work, but the ideas can be applied to a variety of other tools. Every day, in the company, I try to start here. Once a week, every Monday morning, everybody in the company is automatically asked a question – basecamp will automatically ask this question – which is what will you be working on this week? And it’s optional, but people respond and it’s published back to the central place and people can go – it’s a log basically and you can go through it and read it. And this is everything that’s going on in the company basically this week hopefully. This is not about holding anybody accountable, this is not about saying you said you’d do this but you didn’t. This is about exposing information to everyone in the company so they know what’s happening. Jay, our Android programmer, is working on some stuff. Jeff is doing our security infrastructure and performance and working on this stuff. Jeffrey and Dave is working on this – Kristen who runs our support crew is training 2 new people and Lynn who is on marketing is doing this stuff. Some write bullet points and some longer things, some write a variety of things, it doesn’t really matter how they write it. But this is about exposing information to everybody in the company so no matter what role they’re in, they share this information in one place.

Something that we’ll talk about, I will show you some more, it’s this idea that we believe very strongly in the idea of one place. If you want to protect people’s time and attention, you have to make it easy to find what they need and make sure they know they’re seeing the whole story. Something I’ve observed in our own company over the years – we tweaked this thinking about the company as a product, is we have fragmented information and discussions. Some people were talking some stuff in a chat room, some under the to do items or some other ways or in a meeting. And while those particular moments are fine for the people who are talking about those things, they are bad for everybody else because you can’t get the whole picture or story, and when you don’t have it, you don’t know where the whole story is so you have to ask people. When you ask people for things, it claws at their time and attention because they now have to stop what they’re doing and to answer your question about something else. And there’s a lot of dependencies that form when people don’t know where to find stuff. We are against dependencies at any level – as much as possible, I want everyone to be able to work independently and slide past another. If you’re waiting on someone else for information that’s a bug in our company. If you have to ask somebody about what that is, it’s a bug in the company. If some of the stories over here and over here, that’s a bug in our company and we want to solve that. I will show you some examples on how we want to keep everything in one place so that people can find it.

[Audience Question] Yes, I will show you that. Remind me if I don’t, I will show you that in just a minute.

The other thing that’s important – let me step to another thing quick and I can come back to that in a second. So, this is what will you be working on this week? Everyone in the company answers that and at the end of every day we ask everyone what you worked on today? And this is actually really important because what we used to do is the system would generate a report like here’s the to-do somebody checked off, the things someone commented on or somebody spoke. That paints the least human picture of anything, that is like just – whatever you put in the system is what it knows. When people’s days are far more complicated and interesting and colourful than what a system can tell you based on the inputs you put into the system. So, we ask people to write up their day – some people write short bullets again, some people attach some screenshots of stuff they’ve worked on or seen. Some write long, long detailed, interesting articles about very specific problem they faced that day. Something that is not necessarily technically interesting to a lot of other people but it’s a way to be exposed to what other people are doing and what they struggled with during their day.

So, this is Sam, who is one of our programmers and talking about stuff I don’t understand, but it’s interesting. Eileen works and talking about fighting with fires and chatting with someone else and this is her write up of what she did in a given day. Anton is a bullet point guy so he likes to bullet point. Matthew likes to write stories. Jonas has bullet points, but expandable bullet points. Everyone has a different way of describing their day and it’s awesome to read this because you really get a true sense of what’s happening in the company, without having to go follow a bunch of the things that are going on because this information comes to you in everyone’s own words every day. And you can choose to receive it, you can look at it and receive the email – you can get it any way you want but it’s a wonderful way to read up on what’s happening and check it out as you go. So, this is a different way of getting a sense of what’s happening in the company versus running technical reports or feeling like everyone has to follow everything all the time.

[Audience Question] I heard your voice coming from over here – no, it’s not mandatory and about 65% of the company does it. Some don’t do it because their roles are a bit more the same every day like customer service but some people in customer service do a great job with this because they will say here is a difficult case I had today or here’s how I helped a customer today – here’s something I’ve been hearing over and over and finally today I felt like I had to write it up because it’s bugging me and things like that. Depends on the role but about 60-70% of the employees do this. Some do it a few times a week or don’t do it at all, totally fine! Again this is not about ever holding anyone accountable, it’s about information and sharing.

[Audience Question] So, whenever they want. And that’s I think the really important point here, is that something we do and really feel very strongly in is asynchronous communication which – the difference between it and real time is that asynchronous communication puts the pace on the receiver of the information. So, when something is published to Basecamp like this, it’s not saying come look at it right now! It’s saying come look at it whenever you want! There’s no response required here or immediate sense of I need to know everything, every moment. When I have a free time in my day and I can carve out some time for myself and want to check what everyone is working on, I can go and check this out. Or I can get this email at the end of the day, there’s a variety of ways to do that. Some people are more curious than others – I like to read it a lot because I run the place and like to read what’s going on. Some people like to read it because they learn something new about something that’s going on in the company we hadn’t announced. This replaces the need to have a lot of meetings or all hands sort of things, letting everyone know what is going on in the company because this is letting know what’s going on in the company all the time, slowly, and it’s a great way to not have to pull people away – the stuff is here for anyone when they wish to check it out. As far as the percentage of people that consume it, I don’t really know it, specifically, but I also don’t care. Basically it’s here for people and most people enjoy writing this up and look at it, as far as I understand.

Personal vs Company time

To your point about personal time and company time, this is personal time – and one of the important things about this is it’s optional and that’s the key. If it’s optional it’s personal time, if it’s mandatory it’s company time. Like for example, all meetings or Monday morning meetings, a lot of stand up meetings. If you have to attend, that’s company time. We don’t do any of those things, don’t have all hands meetings or stand up or meet in person hardly ever more than 3 people in a room. Because we do all that asynchronously and whatever it is we have to talk about, it doesn’t need everyone’s attention at the same time. People need to know about this stuff but if you find out about it at 4 in the afternoon or 1 it’s fine or even tomorrow. Why does everyone need to know this on Monday morning at 9? Why do I need to steal people’s time to tell them all at the same time? Very few good reasons for this unless you need to know the information at 9:01. So, most of what we do is asynchronous and because of that, I don’t believe most information needs to be disseminated at a point where everyone needs to know it at the same time and need to pull themselves away to receive it.

There are moments when there’s a crisis and we need to talk about it right now, but if that’s happening right now, that’s another bug in the company. There might be 1-2 emergencies a year, like we need to talk now. But most things don’t need to be discussed in real time. We do discuss other things in real time and we have a chat room here, where we talk about stuff, people are bitching about the iPhone and what people do in chatrooms. So, we have all that here too, that stuff exists, but this is – there’s a distinction here between asynchronous and real time. For us, anything that’s important and when I say that, I mean it’s something someone else needs to know about happens asynchronously and that we post something and you can look at it whenever you’re free to. Anything that doesn’t need to be seen by everyone else, a link or whatever, real time chat totally fine, but we don’t make decisions in chat rooms, calls in chat rooms or do any of that stuff because if you do things like that in chatrooms, you’re expected then to follow along all day to wait until something happens in that chatroom so you can jump in and participate which means you have to keep an eye out all day and wait for notifications to say this conversation is happening right now so stop what you’re doing and probably more important when it never is. So, we use chat for social release and for an occasional quick question or whatnot but we don’t use it for discussing work, for showing comps, getting feedback on things because it means that hey, do you need to stop what you’re doing and do what I want you to do instead? When that happens, dozens or 100s of times a day in an organisation, you have a very scattered organisation where people’s days are put into smaller bits because they are being pulled away all day long when there’s an indication that there’s something wrong going on over here. And actually let me parlay that into the point about context.

Context

Context is really important to us – let me talk about what that means. If I’m going to tell someone to check something out, I’ve got to tell them and give them enough information to decide whether or not they need to look at it right now. One of the problems with – and we used to work with way and still have this in basecamp here – I will show you something you’re used to. People who work in chat based organisations will have something like this – which is a series of rooms with some sort of indicator on the side, campfire and these things have rooms and channels and the reds on the right. The problem with this, is that I don’t know what’s behind this dot or number unless I go find out. The problem with that is because the topics or the rooms or channels are generally fairly broad, it can be one of many, many things. Some things might be – they might need my attention and others not need it – but I have to read, scroll back to see if there’s anything worth looking at or responding to which means I have to put my eye on that part of the screen and see if it’s important and distracted.

So, the way – one of the advantages to working in an asynchronous format is that this is taking cues from what is good about email. Email is bad about some things but there’s some great idea which is the idea of subjects. You look in your inbox and there’s subjects and they describe something in a way that is specific to the information and you can decide if you want to act on it or not. You can’t decide that if there’s a room with a number next to it because it could be one of many things. I’d be like calling 911 and saying there’s a fire and they are like where? Boston. Where in Boston? I don’t know, it’s just in Boston. That’s what happens when you work this way, is that there is information in Chicago, well what kind of information do I need to look at it now? Is it important? Does it matter? And I’m constantly being pulled away so what we tend to do is when you work asynchronously, and I will show you some examples, everything gets a title and a permanent place for that entire conversation and discussion and you can then look at it and decide whether or not it’s something worth looking at.

For example, these are the things on the right, I haven’t checked my stuff since yesterday – so this is the stuff I’m involved at some level and need to look at. So, I can take a minute to look at this and go like – this information includes person, time, place, subject. And with that information I have contacts and can decide if it’s something I should look at. So this I don’t care about now, this is a pitch. We’re working on new product development right now so I might want to check that out later. And this is what Jay worked on yesterday and Andrew was inspired by something yesterday. Done! I didn’t have to read the content and figure out what those 54 unread were to decide if it’s something I should have read. I can look at the subjects, time, place and location and have a sense of whether or not I should look at this. This is how you protect people’s time and protection so they are not constantly being pulled away.

One of the other things I want to bring up about this which is an important point, people talk about context switching and chat primarily is a very context switching based tool for communicating – the problem is that when you switch context without context, you end up in a place where you’re doing a lot of bouncing around to find out if it’s worth bouncing. And that’s distracting and takes a lot of time. If you work this way and look at the amount of time you’re bouncing into something to see if it’s worth looking that and record it, I bet you wouldn’t be surprised to see it’s 40-50 times and that’s a bug in my opinion in your company if that’s how you have to find out if there’s something worth looking at.

[Audience Question]. Sure, so that’s a really good question for straddling it because we do both and the main reason is – you show examples of why it’s better. Let me show you one, for example. I bookmarked a couple things that we can talk about today so just a second please.

I’m going to go to this, this is a to-do item we’re working on in native UI for starting new Pings and the topic itself doesn’t matter and this is to do and the entire discussion about that particular piece of work is below that to do and context of the to do. I will scroll through this – the whole story is in one place, across multiple days. When you see this and you ask yourself, and you ask someone, if you were new to this project and you had to get up to speed on what was going on with this. And you were using chat and were having conversations for one day about that was a handful of back and forth and then you stopped and the next day there was another one. There were a bunch of other conversations happening in the meantime. How would anyone get up to speed that way? Were they expected to read back 100s of line and parse it all and piece it all together? It’s much better to have one place where everyone is confident – there’s a central source of truth, where the only story is this story and that’s the whole story.

For example, here’s the to-do and this is Jason’s – he is one of our designers taking a 1st stab at the interface and sort of sharing a few screenshots of this idea he has – and then Jamie Hanson who’s a designer of the Android app has some feedback, I should actually put the date here. So, you can see this started on January 4th, this to-do was created on the 13th he posted this design and there’s a bunch of back and forth – over time I will show you all the way down to the bottom here. Now we’re on July 18th so 5 days have gone by. 15th – February 1st, that’s the whole story. So, the whole story about this feature was about a month long of discussion, over time not in real-time. And the whole story is here – if I asked you to go back to the tool and whatever you guys used for chat slack and look at a particular – by the way this is the same weakness in basecamp, a problem with the medium, the idea of it – and scroll back and go piece together the story of this interface design it would be very hard to do that and it’d be very likely that you would never actually know if you’re done looking for stuff. So, you can keep scrolling back and find a segment of a discussion or conversation and then like well how do I know that’s all? Did we talk about that 2 months ago also or 3 weeks ago? You don’t ever know, so you end up repeating yourself a lot and there’s a lot of double work that’s done in these rooms because you don’t know if it’s been discussed before and there’s no one place to go find the information because it’s scattered amongst other conversations that are happening. It’s a very disorganised way to work – some people are ok with that, I’m not.

The reason I’m not ok with that is because everyone knows their own mess, but you don’t know someone else’s mess. It’s like I know my sh*tty messy desk, I know where everything is on it. If I ask you to go find my keys, you’d be like I have no idea where your keys are. But I know where they are because I know my mess. Bbut when you’re working in groups you have an organised structure that’s predictable and people know where to go to find something and when they hit that, they can see the whole story. So, this is a long answer but when you show things like this to people, they start to understand that it makes their job easier to communicate this way, it also reduces the – it increases patience in the organisation realising people don’t need to respond to everything instantly and this conversation that happened over a month, nothing here needed to be dealt with immediately. It can be dealt with over time, let me think about it, I will explore it and see how it goes. I will take my time and discuss it over time. There’s things that need to be discussed immediately but very few things should be that way I believe.

[Audience Question] Sure! Great question! If it’s only 2 people working on something, that might be ok but if there’s 3-4 people working on something, then they were privy to the phone call and there’s information that’s been shared and backstory people don’t know about and you’ll have to repeat that conversation to someone else down the road when they don’t understand something is missing from the whole story. The other thing is you can try to scribe the call if you want, we don’t do that, we do use Skype from time to time and video conference with 2 people to look at some stuff together, but the bigger thing is you have to think longer term about is, which is that at that very moment, that phone call might have been useful and sometimes it is and we use the phone. But you have a gap in the overall record of information in the story so if someone new comes into the project or you want to reference a decision that you made and you want to look back at something and go why did we do it that way? Someone is like we should change it this way. We had this discussion before so let me point to it so you can look at it and see why we got to this conclusion. And it’s just good to have things documented, I think, and it doesn’t mean that the phone and video and personal meetings are useful and they are useful but there’s a significant cost to those as well so everything has its cost and you gotta play those costs off one another and decide what’s useful in this case – this was a prototype idea, it can go a little bit slower because we’re bouncing some ideas back and forward and it was better to be discussed this way and written out so everyone could be a part of this conversation.

[Audience Question] Sure! We make a decision by posting a message, let me show you how that works. So, let me show you actually a good example of this. Let me think back on a good – ok! So, let me show you something related to that and then I will find this other thing for you cause I think this other thing might show up and if it doesn’t, I will come back to that. Basically, we post messages and messages are sort of the moments when we describe something completely, thoroughly and fully, so let me show you an example here.

Before I show you, let me give you some back story – last year we had about 6 people leave the company in a year which was very rare for us. We have very high retention rates over the past 17 years prior to last year, fewer than 10 people have left the company who worked with us for more than a year. So, really high retention rates, very unusual 5-6 people leave in a given year and I was starting to hear that people were concerned about this and were worried. They were like what’s going on? Why is everybody leaving? And when these people left, we made a bit of an announcement letting the people know they left, but we didn’t tell them exactly why. What happens is when you don’t tell people exactly why, something happens they make up their own stories and things get worse and people have anxiety on their minds and it takes a piece of their retention and in some cases it’s even bad when people – I’ve heard other organisations like someone will get fired and people will start thinking about looking for a new job because like am I next? People have all these thoughts and you gotta clear the air pretty quickly about stuff like that, otherwise it gets really bad.

So, this is an example of an announcement I made and I will show you decisions also in a second. I just got to remember a good example for that. This is a post I put up and it’s set up to everybody in the company that I wrote up, explaining that I understand, I’ve heard some people’s concerns, that some people left the company – we’ve had historically low turnover, what’s going on? So I explained how talking about people leaving is delicate cause sometimes it’s personal thing or whatever but I will go through every single one of these 6 people and I won’t say this out loud cause it’s recorded, you guys can see names. Just I’m showing you the real thing, hopefully we don’t show the screen when the video is up. I went through each person and explained exactly why they are no longer here. Some people – and I’m gonna just scroll through this quickly so we don’t talk personally about anybody but some people had reached sort of the end of their skill level and they wanted to do something new somewhere else. Some people got a new job somewhere else and we wished them well, other people were fired. I had to let them go and I just spelled this out completely and told the whole story, exactly what happened for each person and now the air is cleared and now what happens is – this is a difficult thing to write up and a lot of companies are like what happened to Bob? I don’t know, we don’t talk about Bob anymore [laughing] thing is people are talking about Bob.

That’s the thing, the company doesn’t want to talk about him, everyone else is talking about him. So, it’s important for the company to speak up and explain these things so we write this up and this is the length to which we write things up – we write things up completely so everyone understands the story so there’s no follow-up questions required. They often lead to extra time spent on things that’s unnecessary for clearing the first place so we take time to think this stuff – if I would write it in an email, we don’t use email – if I would write it up in email, what would happen was it would have gone out but future employees who came in who were curious about this – cause there’s folklore in companies – what happened – they wouldn’t have had to forward – it’s a shitty way to work.

So, this is in a permanent place in this basecamp project and then down below we have comments and these comments came in a bit over time and people saying thank you for this, I appreciate it and I was definitely feeling some anxiety about this. And there’s discussion about this and it’s not just the initial announcement, it’s about the follow up conversation that happens about this where people can say thank you for sharing that, I was a bit nervous I appreciate it. Other people said hey, am I the only one who wasn’t nervous about this? And so people talked about that and we just got it all in the open and now there’s a complete full history of that entire conversation from the initial announcement to all the feedback that came in about it in one place, screen and page which I can always reference later, I can point to someone later, if this stuff was scattered in a lot of places you’d never have this thing anymore. You’d have a bunch of small things but I really think it’s something I’ve seen over the years of working with people, having a central source of truth that everyone can refer back to where the whole story lives is one of the most useful ways to get people on the same page about stuff. Now and later. So, that’s how this works, let me show you a decision now. I have to find it because I’m trying to think about what it was even called actually let me show you a pitch first cause that’s easier to show you and then I will get to the decision thing again.

Pitching ideas

So, let me show you how we pitch ideas internally. How am I doing on time? Good, I have 15 minutes, that’s good. Actually, let me go to this one here. So this is our little product strategy team here and let me go – I’m using someone else’s laptop so I’m not used to have to click on the button, I have the tap thing on mine. Pitches, and I wanna go to this.

Ok, so when we pitch ideas, when we have a fully formed idea we want to share with the whole company – this can come from anybody, I can show you other examples of this – anyone is allowed to pitch ideas. The only rule is you have to think it through and write it up fully. We don’t present ideas in person, at meetings. We write ideas up completely to what I call force the floor and that is that when people have the floor, they have everyone’s attention and they cannot be interrupted while they are talking. And the reason this is important it’s because I want people to be a little absorbed in the whole story. Let me show you an example to the depth we go to to pitch a simple idea. So, this is like how long a pitch is, it includes sketches, drawings and maybe some interface mock-ups. This is how we go through an idea to pitch it to one another. It has to be at this level of detail, it can be short, tiny, quick and random ideas and they can be shared amongst people. But when you put an idea forth that we should do, the expectation is that you saw it through and the whole story.

So, we go – we start at the beginning like the backstory, why would I want to pitch this idea? What are the problems? I’ve talked to some people here’s what they say – Ryan is particularly good at this so this is a bit more in detail than most but – and it’s presented this way in one place and then below this we can follow up and I can show you an example here. So, in some cases, to get back to your phone call thing, I will say hey, let’s review this together! So this is when Ryan and I would sit down together and talk it through and then the reason why it’s because it’s only 2-3 people involved in this particular thing so we can kind of do that and the only 2-3 people that will ever see this in this form will be the 2-3 of us. If this idea makes our little battle, then we will present it to the whole company, in a way they can see it. So, right now it’s sort of ok to riff on this together a bit. David who happens to live in Spain, isn’t where Ryan and I are together in Chicago. So, David wrote his response up in detail and then some additional consideration. And then some more back and forth and now there’s a history and what he had to say. So when Ryan and I talk about it, we can incorporate his ideas and we wrote a second pitch based on what we thought about it – anything that if it’s a decision, an announcement, a pitch, anything like that, it’s always written up in long form the same way, so it has a permanent home. And all the follow up commentary about it can be attached to the thing itself. So, that’s how we do things like that.

Another example of this would be – let me jump back to this one here. I will show you another example of this with another level of – internet is a bit slow here. This idea of heartbeats – so let me take a look and make sure there’s nothing too sensitive in here. So, yeah, all right! So once – I talked about at the beginning of every week, everyone writes what they would be doing this week. At the end of the day, they write up what they did and this is all automated. Basecamp asks each person so nobody has to remember to do this. If you want answers from people, you have to ask questions and if a system asks a question, it’s a process. If a persons does, it’s nagging. Ok? So when the system does it, this is just what we do. If I had to ask a direct report every day and write up – I would nag them and they would hate me. So, it’s different ways to approach this and depending on who is doing it it’s different. We ask once a week what do you plan on working on, once a day what did you work on and then once a month every team lead writes up a summary of the general work that the team has been doing over that month and I will show you a couple examples of this.

This is Noah, who is our data guy, he is a team of one, this is sort of his write up and he’s linked into a bunch of things he’s written up. This is one of the beautiful things about having homes for things is you can reference them – if you were to put a bunch of stuff in a bunch of places that’s difficult to reference or the things that are referenceable are chunks of the whole story, it’s difficult to refer to something later. This is like the basic beauty of URLs and links and permalinks and this is so important to be able to reference the whole story. If I click these things, I can have the whole story and not parse it out.

This is our customer service team. Kristen who runs our customer service, she wrote a heartbeat about what’s been happening in the past month in support for everybody. This goes out to everybody and people can chime in down below. This is actually an interesting example, she is announcing she hired 2 people, Janice and Esther and so down below in the comments we have a tradition internally – whenever a new hire is mentioned, people always say welcome to the new hire in the comments section so that we can point that new hire to this page later and they can feel really good about joining the company because everyone welcomed them in the first day. Now we’re remote, if we were local, you could just walk up in the office and everyone says hello, we don’t have that. So, this is our way of doing that. Yes [Audience Question] let’s go back to it! Sure!

So, there’s a project called data, everyone in the company has access to it. Hopefully you’re not seeing anything – doesn’t matter, I trust everybody [laughing] so everyone has access to this project called data and there’s to-do lists and you can click these – you can rename them – and there’s a list on the top called requests. I will show you all of them. On this list, these are the 4 open requests people made and are curious. How many BC3 events were created – different people in the company have questions about stuff, they’re doing product development or marketing and they want to know something and they can’t find it themselves and they put it here and this is a collection of all of the requests and what’s really cool is because again, everything is in one place, here’s the request for something – I don’t know what this is but whatever [laughing] and not only is this the to-do, but this is the whole conversation back and forth between Mercedes who asked about it and Noah who did it and follow up and examples and the whole thing and now there’s a piece of history and information. If anyone else wants to know this, it’s right here. Not only the request but the follow up and the conversation that happened after that. If this would happen in person on the phone, that knowledge it’s lost, gone.

If this would have happened in a chat room, it doesn’t have a label, a thing so you don’t know it’s there and can’t get back to it. Now I can get back to these things so it’s interesting to look through this stuff before you make a request – what percentage of customers are convert to paid within 40 hours of trials? I’m actually curious about that myself- about 43% set up their first paid basecamp within 48 hours. Of all the customers this is the chart, I will scroll by it quick. Whatever, doesn’t matter. This is that! So like now that’s there I don’t have to ask him again and it’s all there, in the data project, on the to-do list.

There’s also things that Noah writes up regularly – by the way this is a little internal thing, you guys wouldn’t see that. These are all the different announcements Noah makes to the whole company about data findings that he thinks are interesting and they are all here and there’s a whole history of everything. Again, if this stuff was said in a meeting it’s gone, unless you were there. If you were in a chatroom, it’s gone unless you happen to find it later. It’s all here organised on the record and if people have follow up questions, they can post these below. This is like a review he went to a conference and posted it here. He loves writing clearly. And a bunch of follow ups and pictures and whatever the experience, put it all here, that sort of thing so that’s how that works.

Another really cool thing that he does on a daily basis is this thing called chart of the day. And what Noah does, this is an interesting finding around data. Noah used to share a lot of data and he realised no one could absorb it all at once so something he does every day and 256 days in a row he’s done this. So it’s workdays and every day he posted a different chart to Basecamp for everyone to see and they are all different things. The total number of emails generated per minute by all our apps combined over the course of the day, this is in millions – I don’t know what it is. Anyway, then he has some commentary below and you can see that we send every hour reminders and 3.5 to 4 million emails per workday across all our apps.

Why most start-ups occur the first time someone visits basecamp.com. There’s a very long tale, about 4% of people sign up more than 90 days after their first visit so he posted that. Sometimes he would post – Serena Williams is the greatest player tennis of all time. It all lives here and it’s cool because these things are – let me see if I can find a good example – live here, you can follow up with them, they all have their own place but you can follow up in the comments section below and follow up on the chart – I’m trying to see if there’s a particularly interesting one with some threads where people can have some really interesting insights and discussions about the data they wouldn’t have seen cause they wouldn’t have bumped into it. We did this customer survey and someone did like a word count of all the responses that came in and there was some feedback about that. Anyway, there are some moment where discussions can be interesting. Here’s 7 discussions,

[Audience Question] yeah, great question! With new hires we typically sort of work them into it, giving them initially access to things they will be working on so they can get to see how it works and the patterns and then we slowly reveal more. Everyone is assigned a buddy from the company who works in other departments and they show them around and get them acclimated and how things are going. Sometimes they will send them some greatest hits – these are some important philosophical decisions we’ve made or an important decision we’ve made or whatever it is and read up on these because this is a good primer to how we approach things and these things. How are we doing on time?

Baseline rules

[Audience Question] that’s a good question. First of all, one of the prerequisites for working at basecamp is that you’re a good writer. It doesn’t mean that you’re confident in writing, but that you can write and that when you applied for the job it was clear you could express yourself clearly. There’s a wonderful article that came out in Harvard business review about how bad writing contributes to something like 40% of inefficiencies in companies for people have to repeat themselves and re-explain stuff, this is why a lot of meetings have to happen again. Like you have a meeting, people didn’t understand it, gotta have it again, people can’t even communicate clearly. We’re careful about that when we hire people and want to make sure everyone is capable of writing well. Doesn’t mean they’re comfortable writing things, but they are capable.

The second thing is that practice is what makes you better. So, this is another one of the reasons why we ask people to write up what they’re working on every day because it’s a really good exercise in writing and explaining yourself and being clear about things and if people have follow-up questions, you get a sense of what was unclear and you get better and better at that over time. We also encourage people to write on our blog, signal versus noise and I’m like an editor, someone goes like I wanna post this, what do you think? It’s a variety of things but they have to initially be good at writing. And it’s like people think well it’s obvious to think that if you wanna hire a designer they should be a good designer, right? No one would question that – I think writing is a pre-requisite for every job to be able to explain yourself clearly to other people this way – some people are only good at explaining themselves in person and that’s a problem for us because we’re remote primarily and second of all, because I really think that if most communication in a company is written anyway in one form or another. And if you can’t explain yourself then it’s very difficult to work with someone like that. So, that’s the rules basically, baseline rules for us.

[Audience Question] great question! Some stuff is very clear very quickly- you look at someone’s cover letter and it’s like I have no idea what they do, I don’t understand anything, they’re out. I don’t care they’re the best developer or designer in the world, if they can’t communicate clearly, they can’t work with other people. So, we have to all work together so if you can’t communicate you can’t work for us basically. Some people we pay really close attention to cause the writing is fantastic and their skills are good but we know we can make those better but they have the fundamental thing, they know how to explain themselves. When we hire customer service people we do writing exercises to make sure they can write. We will ask them and explain to somebody who doesn’t know what bread, peanut butter and jelly is how to make a sandwich. I wanna see how they explain that process, cause that’s like software is for a lot of people. Someone uses it and I don’t understand how this works at all, so it’s similar.

So, we do these things occasionally for people who are public facing with their writing like customer service but internally you can tell quickly – for designers, when we hire them, when we limit or filter the finalists down to 5 – let’s say we have 5 potential candidates, we give them all one project for one week to do, we pay them $1500 for that week to do a real project – they all do the same project independently and part of the project is to explain the thinking behind it, I don’t want to see just the design and that’s a great place to figure out, can this person really get to the point and explain themselves clearly? That’s how we do that.

[Audience Question]. We’ve pretty much always railed against meetings, I find them to be incredibly inefficient ways to spend your time, primarily because it requires schedule coordination, we’ve all been through that – if it’s a standing meeting, it means your day is just 1 hour shorter no matter what basically. And if that scheduled meeting is now at the beginning of the day or later in the day now your day is broken into 2 pieces and it’s not like you’re gonna start something really interesting and creative 30 minutes before it starts cause you know you will have to stop. So, these 1 hour meetings, they bleed out so we’re careful about that. That’s not to say we don’t meet in person, we do occasionally, but very rarely are there more than 3 people in a room together. I find 3 people is enough for everything – most of our project work, 3 people. 2 programmers and one designer basically, works on every feature we do, that’s the maximum people working on it together, that’s it. Because I find that’s the right number here to make sure people can communicate clearly without having to coordinate a bunch of schedules and create confusion so it seems like the right number. David’s in Spain or whatever, we do Skype occasionally when we need to do a bit of video conferencing for whatever reason. But for the most part, almost all of our communication that’s important is written so we can communicate in a way that’s on the record and it’s sort of permanent in a place where we can refer to it later so we know what we talked about.

[Audience Question] Well this is an example of – I don’t know if the internet is slow and we’re running on a beta server so it’s possible that the server is extremely slow, I apologise for – [laughing] rails are slow, nice! You got me on that one!


Come to a Business of Software Conference in 2018

BoS USA 2018 -or- BoS Europe 2018

Get on the BoS Conference Mailing List

Be first to see new videos, join free speaker hangouts, stay up to date on BoS Conference programmes and a regular dose of thought provoking ideas.

Unsubscribe anytime. We will never sell your email address.